Happy senior couple hugging in park

Essential Conversations with Dr. Amy: Caregiving Spouses

I’ve had the opportunity to work with many older couples in which one person has health or mobility challenges and their spouse provides the daily support they need. Oftentimes, these spouses don’t even identify themselves as caregivers. Instead, they tell me that providing care is just part of being a good spouse. For example, my own dad, who was a caregiver to my mom after her stroke, used to tell me, “This is just what people do. This is what it means when we say we will be there for each other in sickness and in health”.

As admirable as these sentiments are, they ignore one important point: caregiving can take its toll on both the caregiver and on the relationship itself. There is a lot of good research that tells us that long-term caregiving can impact the health of the caregiving spouse, contributing to illnesses like depression, anxiety and increased tension between spouses.

I often talk to caregivers about the need to recognize that it may not be reasonable for them to provide all of their loved one’s care alone. And I have found that the hardest people to convince that they don’t have to go it alone are often caregiving spouses! Sometimes they feel that needing help caring for their spouse means they have failed. Actually, I think the best thing a spouse can do is ensure their husband or wife has the best care available, and sometimes that means asking for help.

If you are a caregiving spouse, you may find it challenging to talk with your loved one about how caring for them is impacting you. You may feel it is selfish to be thinking about your need for help with caregiving tasks or your need for more emotional support or socialization. The truth is, this isn’t selfish: it’s necessary. Caregiving is more like a marathon than a sprint – and to complete a marathon, you need to pace yourself and not “burn out” before the race is through. You need the assistance, support and rest necessary to be a caregiver, too, in order to go the distance.

For some spousal caregivers I’ve counseled, the solution is a move to a retirement residence. In a senior living community, you can access the care and services needed for your spouse to maintain their independence and quality of life—thus lessening the amount of daily support you typically provide—while both benefitting from social opportunities and the option of recreational pursuits like exercise classes, clubs or events. In fact, one couple I know told me that they felt they were able to rekindle their relationship after a move into a retirement home because they went back to feeling like husband and wife rather than caregiver and patient.

If you want to explore retirement living, but aren’t sure how to bring about the topic with your spouse, here are some suggestions:

1) Pick a time when both of you are relatively relaxed and well rested.

2) Explain to your spouse that you are thinking about options for living and care that might be good for both of you. I have frequently found that people will consider a move or a different support option if they believe it benefits someone they love, even more than if it benefits them! Given that, you may want to talk to your spouse about how you think retirement living will benefit you and your marriage before explaining what you think the benefits are for them.

3) If your spouse has concerns, listen to them fully. Often, people try to jump to solutions before understanding how someone feels. Once someone believes they were truly heard, they may be more open to new ideas.

4) If you and your spouse cannot reach an agreement about what support solution will work best, you might consider having someone you trust talk with both of you. It could be a trusted friend, a clergy person or a social worker like me.

Dr AmyAbout Dr. Amy D’Aprix
Dr. Amy is a certified senior advisor, Vice President of the International Federation on Aging, and Co-Founder of the Essential Conversations Project. As a gerontological social worker, she has over thirty years of experience working with older adults and their families.